Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, and the Transcendental Argument (Presuppositional Apologetics)

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the difference between Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark concerning the Transcendental Argument, or Proof, for God’s Existence. I’ve actually already made a video on the Transcendental Argument, and I’ll leave it up, but my views have changed a little since that video. I have a lot of respect for Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen, but ultimately, I find Gordon Clark’s arguments to be more persuasive. Links to the blog posts mentioned in this video can be found in the description below.

Before we begin, let’s just point out that both Van Til and Clark have apologetic methods that argue that non-Christian worldviews cannot provide the preconditions for intelligibility. The difference seems to be whether demonstrating the failure of non-Christian worldviews should be labeled as a “proof” for Christianity.

Greg Bahnsen, who was probably the most well-known and articulate proponent of Van Til’s methodology, says that the Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence is a proof for Christianity. The argument essentially states that Christianity must be true because of the impossibility of the contrary. In other words, no other worldview can make rationality, knowledge, and intelligibility possible.

It seems that there have been two approaches to demonstrating the Transcendental Argument:

  • The first is to critique and refute particular non-Christian worldviews, or categories of non-Christian worldviews, such as materialism, dualism, religions without a personal God, and monotheistic religions that assert the truth of the Bible, such as Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism. However, there seems to be a problem with this approach, which is that while all known non-Christian worldviews can be critiqued and refuted, we simply can’t prove that no non-Christian worldview can ever arise that might have satisfactory answers to the questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and morality. However unlikely that possibility might be, the Transcendental Argument just seems to assert too much.
  • A second approach, which seeks to solve this problem, is summarized by the author of reformedapologist dot blogspot dot com, in his article, “Confusion Over The Transcendental Argument For The Existence Of God.” To defend the premise, “If God does not exist, then there is no intelligible experience since God is the precondition of intelligibility,” the author says this: “We can defend the premise of step 2 deductively by appealing to the absolute authority of Scripture. Of course, the unbeliever rejects that authority; nonetheless, that the unbeliever is dysfunctional does not mean that an appeal to Scripture is fallacious! After all, if a skeptic rejects logic should we then argue apart from logic?”

Similarly, Parker Settecase has a blog post titled, “A Clarkian and A Vantillian discuss TAG,” and Parker says this: “… but if Christianity is true, and it makes exclusive claims to truth, then any system that’s opposed to Christianity can’t be true, right?”

In response, Douglas Douma, who has written a book about Gordon Clark, titled The Presbyterian Philosopher, said this: “Yes, but then you’re assuming Christianity to be true (per Clark) rather than proving it (per Van Til). Welcome to the dark side. :)”

Now let’s talk about Gordon Clark’s apologetic method. Here is a quote from Clark himself concerning his method:

“The process of the reductio must be explained to him. There are two parts to the process. First the apologete must show that the axioms of secularism result in self-contradiction. … Then, second, the apologete must exhibit the internal consistency of the Christian system. When these two points have been made clear, the Christian will urge the unbeliever to repudiate the axioms of secularism and accept God’s revelation. That is, the unbeliever will be asked to change his mind completely, to repent. This type of apologetic argument … [does not] deny that in fact repentance comes only as a gift from God” (from Karl Barth’s Theological Method, page 110.)

Of course, this method is not a strict proof for Christianity. It can only refute the worldviews that we know about and present a positive case for Christianity. In response to the criticism that this apologetic method means that Christianity is only “possibly true,” since it does not rule out the possibility of all possible non-Christian worldviews, here are two quotes from Douma.

First, in his discussion with Parker, Douma writes, “Clark disliked many of the ways philosophers used the term probability. I suspect his views there would extend to the use of “possibility.” I don’t see much value in the term “possibly true.””

Second, in his blog post titled, “Gordon Clark’s Apologetic Methodology,” Douma writes, “The Scriptures do not seek to prove God’s existence, but always assume that He IS. And from this basis comes the command “Repent and believe in the gospel.””

Finally, in Douma’s blog article where he reviews Gary DeMar’s book, Pushing the Antithesis, The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, Douma answers Bahnsen’s critique concerning merely viewing Christianity as being “superior” to other worldviews and not as the only possible worldview. Douma writes this:

Though Bahnsen argues for the “impossibility of the contrary” and “not the superiority of Christianity,” I believe there is another option. That is, not only is Christianity superior to other worldviews, it is the only known worldview that is consistent and liveable. And we can only choose from live options. Each non-Christian worldview must be critiqued individually.

So, although Clark might accept the terms “Dogmatism” and “Fideism” (fi-day-ism) as describing his position, at the same time, Clark certainly finds much value in arguing for the truth of the Christian worldview and the failure of non-Christian worldviews. He just would not say that these arguments rise to the level of “proof,” as Van Til and Bahnsen might.

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